Review: Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia

By Joe Robinson 30 Apr 2018 0

Review: Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia

Released 03 May 2018

Developer: Creative Assembly
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Available from:
Steam

The Anglo-Saxon period of English history doesn’t get as much attention at it deserves. Little is known about how we get from post-Roman Britain to a patchwork of competing Germanic Kingdoms, but we know a lot more about the Great Viking Invasion, and Alfred the Great’s struggle to preserve his Kingdom and his people’s way of life. While he was never King of England himself, Alfred paved the way for his grandson, Athelstan, to unite the realm for the first time many years later. It’s a wonderfully volatile period of history and the subject of Creative Assembly’s newest Total War offering.

Thrones of Britannia is the first in a new series of games that Creative Assembly are calling ‘Total War Sagas’. These are meant to be more focused experiences, similar to something like Napoleon: Total War but with a more deliberate design. You could say ‘smaller’ games, as they aren’t meant to be as encompassing as the full titles, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate – the map is HUGE. The studio claims it’s the most detailed map they’ve ever done, and you can certainly believe them. From the Saxon Shore all the way up to the Scottish Highlands (and across to Eire in its entirety), the British Isles have been brought to life in a way even Shogun 2’s Feudal Japan can’t compete with.

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At the same time, you’re unlikely to engage with the majority of landmass available to you. Thrones of Britannia rocks a modest 10 playable factions, but those factions span five different culture groupings – two for each – that are fairly scattered across the isles. Two major Saxon powers in West Seaxe (Wessex) and Mierce (Mercia) compete for control over what’s left of Saxon Britain, and to try and reclaim what was lost to the Vikings. The Norsemen get two culture groups – the ‘Viking Sea Kings’ ruling Sudreyar and then Dyflin (Dublin) care less about land and more about raiding and pillaging. The Great Viking Army are represented by the Kingdoms of Northymbre and East Engle (Northumbria and East Anglia), who want to finish what they started and rule unchallenged. There is also Welsh Gwined and then Strat Clut (Strathclyde) – these remnants of Celtic Britain face challenges from all sides in their quest to reclaim their ancestral homeland. Finally, there are two Gaelic factions –Mide in Ireland and Circenn in Scotland. Mide must resist the increasing Viking incursions in its quest to become High King in Ireland, while the Scottish Circenn has a Kingdom of its own to forge in the troubled north.

It’s a very deliberate set-up – each faction & culture group has their own play-style and by design are unlikely to stray too far out of their local area, or at least the area where their objectives lie. Thus this large, imposing map of Britain ends up being a lot smaller than it seems. Unless you’re playing as Sudreyar, then the map really is as big as it seems because it takes so long to get anywhere.

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As well as being a focused experience, this Total War Saga acts as proving ground of experimental design. So far, we’re a big fan of the variations they’ve done on exiting mechanics. Trade, for example, is now automated. Provided you’re not at war with a faction and there are suitable routes, it’s assumed you’d want to trade with a faction because, hey, who doesn’t like money? Those deals are made automatically and dynamically as factions come and come. Technology Is also different – all the branches start locked, and only unlock as you meet certain conditions. You will only be able to research tech that compliments the play style you’re going for.

Recruitment of troops is also slightly different. The Rome II style of the ‘Army’ being the focal point still holds, and you recruit troops directly into that army from an available pool of units. Those units become available instantly, however they only start at around reduced strength – you must wait for them to reinforce up to full strength. There’s also a logistics system; every unit in the game has an upkeep in food. You need to generate more food via buildings than you’re using up, otherwise your faction suffers. Similarly, Armies build up a store of ‘supplies’ based on the infrastructure of the province, which they use up when in foreign territory. If they can’t either take a province that can sustain them or retreat home, they will start taking attrition.

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Thrones of Britannia is full of little tweaks and features like this – even the Family/Politics system is engaging, with titles to appoint, estates to hand out and governors to assign. You need to manage the loyalty of everyone who isn’t your factions’ leader, basically, and for once it doesn’t suck.

At the same time, there are issues – I’m not so sure the pacing is quite right, for example. Movement ranges seem unusually harsh, although you can specialise and research things that improve this. It’s a more noticeable issue with the sea-based Viking factions. Diplomacy is still largely redundant as an active feature. The AI will let you know when it once to be friends, and you can also conquer a faction into being a vassal or liberate a faction so that it would be your friend. There’s less of an emphasis on owning territory yourself, although Province management becomes a bit of a pain as there doesn’t seem to be a way to create new vassals, or hand over territory to one.

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Ultimately, it’s the little things that both make and break Thrones of Britannia, although ‘break’ is a strong word. Until very recently (and even then, the Total Warhammer’s aren’t perfect either) every Total War game has elements that are great, and elements that are not so great. In that sense, Britannia is no different. The foundations are all there, but the execution leaves something to be desired. For example, every faction as story/narrative events meant to guide the player’s actions, but these seem lack-lustre. West Seaxe is the faction I played the most, and these are the story events I got:

  1. Defeat the Rebel Army (everyone gets one of these)
  2. Defeat East Engle
  3. Defeat Gwent (a Vassal who rebelled)

Not long after I completed the third one, I won the game via a ‘Short’ Fame Victory on Turn 49. Five turns later I triggered the Short Kingdom Victory, getting my faction renamed to Anglo-Saxons. I then played another 5 or so more turns after that before stopping – I never received any new missions after Turn 49. When I tried out Dyflin, I didn’t get any story events beyond the first two. There are other mechanics, like the Witan, or the Field of Assembly for Sudreyar, which is meant to throw up missions and problems for you to solve whose implementation could have been better as well. These attempts at dynamic story telling are welcome, but they’ve got a long way to go before they can compete with the likes of, say, Paradox. The only genuinely interesting thing is that random warbands will spawn at the edge of the map and go a-Viking, which helps break up the status quo.

The tactical battles deserve a mention, if only because being based on the Total War: Attila engine things have gone back to the good old days before Total Warhammer ruined everything. This being an era largely concerned with infantry melee tactics, the unit rosters are limited but vary by culture, and it’s mainly about unlocking higher tired versions of the same units via research. The Levy units will get slaughtered like cattle if you’re not careful about who they’re fighting, but largely unit survivability is reasonable. Evenly matched forces can grind each other to dust still, but It happens slightly quicker and so still relies on clever manoeuvring and sound tactics to avoid crippling losses. If Creative Assembly don’t want to go back to Rome II’s level of paced warfare, then what they’ve done in Thrones of Britannia is an acceptable half-way house.

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Being based on an older version of the Total War engine, Thrones of Britannia was only ever going to be able to achieve so much, but it has done as well as can be expected. It’s the usual mix of great ideas and features, tempered with conservative implementation. I haven’t had this much fun waging wars and grand campaigns of conquest in a while, so they’ve managed to nail that. Like any Total War game your mileage will vary depending on how well you enjoy the theme, and it helps that I’m a fan of the period – the game is very immersed in the history of the era, and it all feels very thematic. I’m a big fan of the stylised cutscenes and the other visual niceties.

Thrones of Britannia is a game of small victories – the finer touches are what makes it shine, but the broad strokes are no different to what you’ve played before. There will be moments of excitement and wonder, followed by stretches of tedium or sterile, mechanical gameplay. As proof of concepts go, there have certainly been worse, and we’re interested in seeing what the Total War Sagas team comes up with next.

A worthy proof of concept; great ideas and experiments tempered by conservative implementation. As long as your expectations are managed with care, you’ll still find plenty of enjoyment here.

Review: Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia

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